Sunday, October 22, 2017

Masha Gessen on Empire and Terrorism

Massa Gessen has become something of a personal hero for me.  She’s a prolific Russian-American (or perhaps American-Russian) who demonstrates indefatigable personal courage with every new literary, historical or journalistic project she takes on.  She’s a champion of civil rights and a worthy inheritor of the rich moral heritage of the Russian intelligentsia.  Her choice of investigative projects reveals her insatiable curiosity, broad knowledge of Russian culture, and firm commitment to democratic politics.  This blog has reviewed a variety of her books, including ones that analyze Putin, the political protest band, Pussy Riot, and the fate of the Russian intelligentsia.   Gessen has a new book out that seems to provide readers with an overview of Russia’s current anti-democratic moment, but before I tackle that book I’ll just mention her small gem, The Brothers:  The Road to an American Tragedy.  In this short book, Gessen writes a sort of textbook on 21st century terrorism.  

As a student of true crime fiction, I admire Gessen’s contribution to this sometimes-underrated literary genre.  In the tradition of those who, like Capote or Mailer, have move beyond the inhuman elements of vicious crime in order to uncover something wonderfully precious about human nature, Gessen explores the complex, unstable, intercontinental lives of the Boston Marathon bombers.  As an immigrant to America with persistent connections to her native land, and a civil rights activist who has done some work analyzing multiple Chechnya catastrophes, Messen is well placed to tell these stories.  Gessen’s theme is that the genesis of terrorism cannot be located in a strange and unfamiliar location overseas.  In fact, the bombers’ commitment to violence didn’t simple arise as a result of their contact with violent jihadists in Chechnya.   The Boston Bombers were not merely passive recipients of a violent overseas radical ideology. Indeed, Gessen asserts that the elder brother, a man in contact with several strains of American liberalism, can be said to have attempted to radicalize his overseas friends and family.  

To be sure, Gessen does not offer any easy explanations for the violent ideology of her subjects.  Instead, she shows how truly global terrorist ideologies can be.  When Stalin first displaced the residents of Chechnya to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan, he set in motion a truly international phenomenon.  Indeed, even before Stalin, Russian imperialism meant that local patterns of violence at the periphery of the Russian empire would eventually be replicated at the centers of imperial power, including Moscow.  Of course, Russia’s recent wars in Chechnya are even more directly related to the birth of a global jihadist creed.  With Grozny transformed into one of the most war-torn cities on the planet, its residents would naturally flee to every corner of the earth, including many Russian and American cities. 

The temptation is to see this Chechnya diaspora as bearing responsibility for the violence that was inflicted on Chechnya, but Gessen is at pains to demonstrate that the global ideology of imperialism undergirds the global ideology of Muslim extremism.  In fact, Gessen also dissects America’s strains of imperialism, manifested in anti-Muslim 911 sentiment and governmental overreach.  Her point is to demonstrate that any international ideology of violence emanating from the metropolis, whether it originates in Moscow or Washington, D.C., is likely to breed its inverse creed on the peripheries of empire.  Gessen’s book suggests something powerful about the impact of war and dislocation and imperial power on vulnerable men and women.  But the book also suggests how vulnerable all immigrants are as they struggle to remake their worlds in the midst of a foreign and disorienting culture.  

As an immigrant herself, Gessen seems to instinctively understand that although the overwhelming number of immigrants successfully overcomes every barrier to assimilation, they often do so only after great psychological effort.  In any case, it’s interesting to see that the Boston bombers were somehow both extremely isolated by their attachment to a peripheral culture (e.g., Gessen points out that a girl could be subject to an honor killing for holding hands with a boy from a different ethnic group), and thoroughly immersed in global culture (e.g., they routinely discussed politics with their Cambridge-liberal landlady, spoke multiple languages, and sometimes travelled to visit far-flung relatives).  

Messen’s book reminds me of another book that examines the Janus-head of immigration, the French Intifada.  In this book, the author notes that somehow Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian familiarity with French culture easily coexists with its opposite: Antipathy for French racism and colonial attitudes. Like the Boston Bombers, French residents and citizens of North African decent are products of a long history of colonial violence and imperial power in their homelands.  Whether in France, America, or Russia, terrorism is in a sense the almost inevitable reflection of the truly global scale of empire.  This isn’t to lay blame for terrorism on its victims, but only to do as historian of empire Antoinette Burton suggests and analyz   

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